The business landscape is shifting like never before, with the lines between work and life blurring, technological change accelerating, the rise of the gig economy and a growing need for workforce mobility. This means that both employers and employees are operating in a state of constant change.
Since COVID-19 has turned the work of work upside down, understandably, the initial focus of most employers has been on enabling business continuity, followed by ensuring physical protection against infection for employees who have returned to the workplace. However, with the uncertainty that has accompanied the pandemic and the additional burdens that it has placed on South African employees, employers should not overlook the supreme importance of seeking to assist their employees in overcoming the negative impact the pandemic has had on their on their mental wellbeing.(1) It is entirely likely, if we are not careful, that a mental health pandemic could be on its way.
It is entirely likely, if we are not careful, that a mental health pandemic could be on its way.
Stress and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus pandemic
Pandemics can be seen as behavioural phenomena; that is, they are caused and contained by human behaviour. Seen in this light, a range of non-pharmaceutical, behavioural interventions, such as lockdown, social distancing and hand hygiene are seen as being effective in curbing the burgeoning rate of infection.(2) Through having these behavioural measures enforced, the coronavirus pandemic has touched every part of our society and challenged our very nature as social beings through social distancing and stay-at-home measures.
It is not surprising that the outcome is many people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress, while people with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder experience an intensifying of their conditions. People with existing conditions have not been able to maintain the regular routines that are a critical part of maintaining their well-being. In short, all lives have been disrupted and faced with an uncertain future.(4)
It is not surprising that the outcome is many people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress
The added impact on mental health of everyday life in uncertain times
Alongside these unprecedented environmental dynamics people are experiencing everyday personal challenges and major life events
What is more, alongside these unprecedented environmental dynamics people are experiencing everyday personal challenges and major life events, such as getting married or divorced, having babies, experiencing financial and family worries, buying or selling homes and relocating, all with the associated emotional demands.
Additional workplace stress
Beyond coping with “normal” life stressors, some people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by a widespread disaster or some other traumatic experience by using their own support system. Others may feel overwhelmed by feelings of fear or anxiety that negatively affects job performance and interpersonal relationships. In the current interrupted workplace employers should recognise the risks that work-related stress can pose. Putting support mechanisms in place and consciously creating a culture where employees feel able to voice concerns should enable employers to identify the risks and devise strategies to manage them.
Common reactions to living in these trying times include:
- Grief or sadness
- Emotional numbing
- Loss of pleasure from familiar activities
- Difficulty feeling happy
- Impaired concentration
- Impaired decision-making ability
- Memory impairment
- Decreased self-esteem
- Decreased self –efficacy
- Intrusive thoughts/memories
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Cardiovascular strain
- Startle response
- Increased physical pain
- Reduced immune response
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Decreased appetite
- Decreased libido
- Vulnerability to illness
- Increased relational conflict
- Social withdrawal
- Reduced relational intimacy
- Impaired work performance
- Impaired school performance
- Decreased satisfaction
- Externalisation of blame
- Externalisation of vulnerability
- Feeling abandoned / rejected
How can employers help their employees?
Maintaining the human factor in the new normal: Regular communication is among the most critical contributions an employer can make to support employees during the coronavirus pandemic. While working remotely, being part of a staggered shift, in quarantine or on furlough, the consequences for a person’s mental health could be severe if an employee were to have little or no contact with her or his employer. It should be up to each employer, possibly in consultation with employees, to decide the best means and how often to reach out, as this would vary depending on practical factors. However, the contact between employer and employee should be frequent enough, and of sufficient quality, to be meaningful.
Regular communication is among the most critical contributions an employer can make
More than ever, employers should make their employees aware of how they can access EAP support
Paving the way to support from EAP: One of the most essential functions of an EAP is to provide confidential support services on demand, when and where employees need them. More than ever, employers should make their employees aware of how they can access EAP support and should proactively facilitate access to such services if they are concerned about an employee’s mental wellbeing.
Ultimately, it is vital that employers, and their employees, work together to take shared responsibility for the safeguarding of employees’ mental health. Employees should play their part by practising self-care and adopting healthy coping strategies as well as being sure to make use of employee support services offered by their employer when these are needed.
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